Council takes first look at cuts in Town Hall staff


When a local government aims to reduce expenses, the usual suspects include inefficiency and redundancy in town hall.

To say that the Atherton City Council is aiming to cut costs in Town Hall is to state the obvious. This town, home to some of the wealthiest people in the country, is facing a long-term structural deficit and unsustainable costs -- for employee pensions and health benefits, and for police services.

An improving economy, were that to come along, may help indirectly by turning around the real estate market, but since there are no retail businesses in Atherton, there is no sales tax revenue.

A report by City Manager Jerry Gruber on a feasibility study of cutting the size of Town Hall staff did not go over well with Mayor Kathy McKeithen at the Aug. 18 council meeting.

"This does not look like a classification study," Ms. McKeithen began, using the term of art for such a report. The report is too subjective, too focused on opportunities for staff advancement, and insufficiently cognizant of the interests and needs of the citizens, she said.

The report mentions several "weaknesses" in Town Hall staffing:

■ The Public Works Department should establish career ladders and more training to help retain skilled workers. An additional entry-level position would meet "minimum safety staffing" in the department.

■ The town's deputy city clerk position, which was reclassified from city clerk to reduce costs, is being supervised by the city manager and assistant city manager. The deputy needs a career ladder to advance.

■ The assistant city manager lacks clerical and administrative support because the person with that job spends most days on post office and cashier duties.

■ A yet-to-be-hired environmental programs coordinator should take over green programs from public works.

"Weaknesses, weaknesses, weaknesses, and yet I don't see the weaknesses," Ms. McKeithen said. "It's basically like a career path analysis for the staff. It doesn't have the distance perspective that was necessary to properly evaluate fellow staff members."

Councilman Jim Dobbie faulted the report for missing the point. "It doesn't address the new priority in town, which is 'How do we get a balanced budget?'" he said. "It's going in exactly the wrong direction."

But Town Hall is moving ahead, Mr. Gruber noted. The town has cut temporary employment in public works, eliminated landscaping contracts for mowing, not filled the position of office assistant, and downgraded the city clerk and the assistant finance director positions; the latter position was reclassified to accountant.

Council members Elizabeth Lewis and Charles Marsala viewed the report more positively. "I honestly think that it was very well researched," Ms. Lewis said, calling it a first step and suggesting that Ms. McKeithen may have had unrealistic expectations.

The report, Mr. Marsala said, notes Town Hall's successes, addresses green mandates, and skirts personnel issues best discussed behind closed doors. "I think you've done a good job in finding that line and giving us advice," he told Mr. Gruber.

Councilman Jerry Carlson posed a question to Mr. Gruber: "Is the town headed for a financial crisis?"

"I think we need to spend more time on the five-year plan," Mr. Gruber replied. "I have concerns but I don't think we're headed for the train wreck that we think we're headed for. We do need to be cost-conscious."

"It's been one of those perfect storm situations," he said, noting hits to the general fund from lawsuits and refunds to residents from business license and road impact fees. "Those are all issues that I've inherited," Mr. Gruber added.

"I think our residents want the best. I think our residents deserve the best. Whether you want to hear this or not, (town staff) have to have opportunities to advance," he said. "It's not solely an expense issue. It's a revenue issue. ... Every building we have is ready to fall down."

In response, Mr. Carlson said that "revenue enhancement," while a priority, ought to be at the bottom of the list. At the top, he said, should be what Finance Committee member and economist Alain Enthoven noted in three papers: employee pensions, employee and retiree health benefits, and police services.

"I really think we do have a crisis situation," Mr. Carlson said. "We've got to do something different and we don't have a long time frame to do that."

Mr. Dobbie did not mince words. "A couple of (Town Hall) positions are being paid way over what they should be," he said. "The sledge hammer way to do this is to start laying off people. I don't want to do that. If we're paying somebody $30 for a $10 job, that's something we need to take a look at."

This is a "very serious situation (that will be) extremely difficult to solve," and cutting salaries won't do it, Mr. Marsala said. The town has no sales tax revenue and is home to "numerous" residents from whom the town receives less than $1,000 a year in property taxes, he said.

That, with the $750 parcel tax, adds up to about $1,750 received per household, and town operations cost about $4,000 per household, Mr. Marsala said.

Resident Loren Gruner, during the public comment period, advised the council to find creative ways that involve all stakeholders, as she has done in her company. "Oh my gosh, they totally rise to the occasion when it's a situation of jointly working together," she said.

Employee qualifications should be a priority, said resident Kimberly Sweidy. "You're looking at one side of the coin," she told the council. "I think if you actually get qualified people in here, they'll be efficient and effective."

"Unfortunately," Finance Committee member Jeff Wise said, "in order to solve our financial problems, it's going to involve some pain. If we're just talking about this for another year, we're going to be in really serious trouble."

These discussions will be more fruitful when the council meets in closed session and can frankly discuss employee compensation, said Assistant City Manager Eileen Wilkerson.

Closed session is not necessary, City Attorney Wynne Furth said. "The town's goals have to do with what it wants to provide and how it wants to pay for them," she said. "It's legitimate to talk about the cost of a function" in open session.

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Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 26, 2010 at 6:33 pm

"These discussions will be more fruitful when the council meets in closed session and can frankly discuss employee compensation, said Assistant City Manager Eileen Wilkerson."

Any closed session discussions on general employee compensation would be ILLEGAL under the Brown Act. The personnel exemption allowing closed session discussions pertains only to discussion of a single individual and to certain labor negotiations.

"The Brown Act authorizes a closed session “to consider the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline, or dismissal of a public employee or to hear complaints or charges brought against the employee.”"The personnel exception specifically prohibits discussion or action on proposed compensation in closed session, except for a disciplinary reduction in pay."

Like this comment
Posted by let get this over with
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 26, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Good clarification Peter
A closed session discussion on a disciplinary reduction or even elimination of Wilkerson's salary sounds like an appropriate use of council time to me.

Like this comment
Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 26, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Peter, I think she wants it to be discussed in closed session because frankly the suggestions that are coming out of this report are absurd. Atherton is in a financial CRISIS and the recommendations coming out of the report are simply to spend more money rather than to cut back:

1. Hire a secretary for an Assistant Town Manager…when we shouldn't even have an Assistant Town Manager?

2. Hire an Environmental Programs Coordinator?

3. Hire an additional public works employee?

Well, I tend to "say it like it is" and I know some people don't appreciate this, but there is something disturbing about the arrogance that is associated with this management coming up with a report that says spend more money in this environment.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 26, 2010 at 7:10 pm

"Closed session is not necessary, City Attorney Wynne Furth said."

What she should have said was that such a closed session would be ILLEGAL. Why do I have to teach the Town Attorney what is the law on closed session?

Like this comment
Posted by John P Johns
a resident of another community
on Aug 26, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Here are my recommendations for cutting costs

Eliminate the assistant city manager position.
Eliminate the finance director position.

Conduct a national search for a director of administrative services.

Allow both Louise Ho and Elaine Wilkerson to apply but provide neither of these two with any guarantee of future employment. Let both of these individuals know that Atherton expects the best and brightest and if either of them can demonstrate that they are more qualified and more eager to serve the Town's problems than another competitor for the job then one of them can stay but not both.

Promote the City clerk to full city clerk. Her demotion was done only to justify a higher salary for the Assistant City Manager. The town will save about $180,000 per year by consolidating the finance director and assistant city manager positions. This will be more than enough to pay the $10,000 or so more that the Deputy City Clerk is being paid.

Contract out for police services. This will save $2 million annually. This will also quite probably reduce legal costs in the future.

Like this comment
Posted by Kimberly Sweidy
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Aug 26, 2010 at 9:33 pm

My subcontractors have been communicating with me how difficult and time-consuming it is to get the Town of Atherton Business License. Apparently, this function has been "outsourced."

Selling Business Licenses is not that complicated or time-consuming. Why can't it be done at one of the counters? Shouldn't this be part of Ms. DellaSanta's or Ms. Brabenec's job? If everything is going to be outsourced, what are we paying these people for?

Like this comment
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 26, 2010 at 10:46 pm

"Those are all issues that I've inherited," Mr. Gruber added.

Heard that before???

If only this were handled like a private business, Gruber just in the last week would have been run out of town.

So it's apparently clear that he has neither the ability to think on his feet or when he has time to sit down and to potentially compose something reasonable.

Like this comment
Posted by Matters Not
a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Closed session or no, the outcome is going to be the same.
Atherton is in financial trouble and, I personally think it is for a good reason.
Outrageous spending and not enough coming into the coffers.
It is no different than any city in America and particularly in the wealthiest groupings of our towns in San Mateo County.
Laws will not be changed even if they were to be of any help.
The diversity of all our adjoining cities does not alter the fact that besides our own governments, the failure is widespread among communities which are not known for the wealth of its citizens alone among the rest of America.
Laws are going to have to change all over the U.S. no matter whether one likes it or not. There is no other way.
People cannot rely on the LAW as something that cannot be changed, altered or found to be outdated and lethal to our country.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 28, 2010 at 4:32 pm

One interesting way to save taxpayers' money AND improve the quality of our city/town councils would be to consolidate Menlo Park and Atherton into a single entity - Menlo Atherton.

And in the process the voters could pick the best new council members.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 28, 2010 at 5:39 pm

While we are at it, let's really make some changes:
1) consolidate Menlo Park and Atherton
2) add in the adjacent unincorporated areas of San Mateo County
3) 1 City Council elected on the basis of fiscal responsibility
4) 1 police department or outsource to the Sheriff
5) add in ALL the schools which all located within the new city boundaries and have the City Council also serve as the Consolidated School Board with a Schools Committee

The result - Huge savings and clear accountability and responsibility.

Like this comment
Posted by Why Not?
a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2010 at 5:59 pm


You might want to making it match the MPFPD district boundaries. Throw in EPA and make it really interesting.

Can't imagine the consolidation would impact your Atherton property value too much ...

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 28, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Why Not asks:"You might want to making it match the MPFPD district boundaries. Throw in EPA and make it really interesting. "

I agree it make a lot of sense but I think that the political realities would doom including EPA - I don't see Menlo Park and Atherton voters being willing to take on the incredible challenges of EPA. Sad but true.

Like this comment
Posted by Why Not?
a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2010 at 6:10 pm


If you're going to go down that path, why not change the Town charter to allow for retail businesses and collect sales taxes? Why not annex some of the contiguous unincorporated areas?

With that kind of change, Atherton could survive as an independent political entity and still enjoy much of the character which actually drives up the property values.

Seems premature to throw the baby out with the bath water and merge cities together when such obvious alternatives exist.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 28, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Why Not states:"Atherton could survive as an independent political entity "

Having Atherton 'survive' is not one of my objectives. My objectives are good government, fiscal responsibility and efficiency - Atherton as it exists provides none of these.

Like this comment
Posted by Why Not?
a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2010 at 6:23 pm


You may be in the minority.

I think most people vote for what will preserve their property investment. Consolidating with Menlo and sucking in some unincorporated areas *might* make for better, more efficient government.

For Athertonians, there is a great deal of risk with little upside. Particularly when there is a higher probability of success with simply allowing for limited retail.

Good for you, though, for having such noble principles.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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